Sunday, March 22, 2009

Disney Marathon: Pinocchio

Pinocchio (1940,Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)

With Snow White being a critical success, Disney studios were anxious to beat the iron while it was still hot. A mere 3 years following their initial feature length hit saw the release of their sophomore effort, Pinocchio, based in the original story written by Italian author Carlo Collodi.

The cinematic adaptation of Collodi’s tale was not without its share of troubles. The original drafts had our wooden hero face off more enemies and visit a few more locales, as is the case in the source material ( a giant snake, Pinocchio as a donkey in a circus, the fairy acting as is sister at one point and then later on as his mother, etc). Not only were those ideas dropped, but the characterization, both physical and personal, was another point of contention in the studios. Collodi’s Pinocchio was not as audience-friendly as the finished product, acting more as a wise-guy brat almost. Physically, the boy reportedly resembled a true wooden puppet, complete with the awkward pointy ends. This was also changed as the Disney version makes the lad look (in my eyes at least) very much like a human with the exception of the joints (notice the very Micky Mouse-esque gloves). Jiminy Cricket wasn’t even part of the plot at first! Needless to say, the production on this film was a bit of a roller coaster ride.

And so it was that after much debate behind closed doors, a halt in mid-production and a host of changes from the original material that the film we all know saw the light of day. Although not as prolific among the critics or at the box office back in 1940 (WWII had begun after all and it’s very safe to assume that the minds of many North American and European citizens were on Nazis rather than on fantasy tales), Pinocchio is, today, regarded by many as a classic film, an exquisite example of Disney’s talent, with regards to both storytelling and animation quality. Precisely as with Snow White, this is a film I had of course heard much about without ever having sat down to watch it, until today.

The immediate and crucial element that struck me as I viewed the film was how the titular character is driven by a goal, which, to the best of my knowledge, was not so much the case with the main character in Disney’s previous instalment. Pinocchio is told by the fairy, this beautiful and gracious creature that only fairy tales can breath life into, that in order to become a red blooded boy with soft skin, he is to learn right from wrong, to become a gentle and kind young lad, just like we would like all young boys to be. Be nice and good things will happen. Be a brat and punishment and sadness will be your rewards. Nobody likes a jerk, so you shouldn’t expect good things if you opt to take that path. If he behaves like Bart Simpson, then the deal is off and he remains a decorated tree trunk. I found this a compelling challenge for him. There are no major antagonists per say in the story, only a series of smaller foes that are hurdles which Pinocchio must surpass in order to vanquish the real villain of the story: temptation. The temptation of earning skipping school, the temptation of earning money the easy way, the temptation to lie in order to hide one’s faults and mistakes. As mature cinephiles (except for a few of us), we understand this message, this is very clear. But as part of a children’s tale, I thought it was a clever idea. Don’t make the villain a monster, a ghost or an alien. Rather, have the hero challenged above all else by his own weaknesses. Have him learn from his own mistakes and acquire the ability to shun his sins. Through this process, he becomes a decent human being. By the end, Pinocchio, the fictional character, quite literally becomes a human boy. However, in a thematic and moralistic sense, he does genuinely become a decent human being. He learns what it is to sacrifice one’s well being for the well being of another, more specifically in this case for the well being of a loved one. To give and receive love in all its forms (and all the lovely perks that come with it), personal effort is required. To acquire comfort and success, effort is required. A simple little lesson, but one that fits the story very nicely.

Which brings us to the character of Pinocchio. He does behave like a young boy, eyes wide open to all the luxuries of the world. They are offered to him at the flick of a whim. Offer a child some chocolate or a toy and chances are they will take it without thinking twice or inquiring into your intentions for offering that goods in question. The fact that Pinocchio is a wooden boy is almost of lesser importance than the actual moral value in what the fairy asks of him. The point is that Pinocchio wants to be accepted, a normal person who can function in society as most of us do. Thinking about it seriously for a moment, Pinocchio didn’t even have to be made of wood at all. It adds to the fairy tale aspect of course, and in that respect works well enough, but the real matter of the issue is in what he must go through and hence what he learns along the way. He is a boy, but has to become a good boy, which, I’m certain you readers who are siblings or parents know every well, is indeed a big learning process.

I applaud the film for possessing this moral bedrock, this backbone. I’m not saying Snow White didn’t have anything decent in it, but I won’t deny that I always felt its plot to be driven mostly by the machinations of a princess fairy tale. The story of Pinocchio, while undoubtedly decorated by several fantastical elements, carries with it a deeper, more relatable core.The pacing of the film therefore has slightly more momentum than did its predecessor. There are more misadventures for our hero to venture on because he has to go on this journey in order to become a better person. Honest John, Stromboli, Pleasure Island and Monstro the giant whale are all formidable opponents and they all receive the right amount of screen time in the movie’s 84 minute running length. Even the musical sequences, albeit far and few between, seemed to serve the purpose of the story. Geppetto testing out his new puppet while teasing his kitten Figaro, and Pinocchio’s performance as a dance and singer in Stromboli’s theatre group are the two most notable musical sequences and both serve the plot fittingly. The former reinforces the jolly and nature of Geppetto and leads into his desire for his invention to become a real boy, while the latter shows Pinocchio in the admiring eye of spectators, just before he learns that he has actually been duped into slaving away for the nefarious Stromboli. Overall, things simply seemed to be moving at a quick pace, but one that still respected the story and its central theme.

While perhaps not offering the ‘wow’ factor that Snow White did in th animation department, I thought the film looked very nice. There are a lot of rich, warm colours, which makes sense given that Geppetto makes children’s toys, which tend on average to be bright and attractive. Character movements are all rather fluid and believable and there is a fair amount of artistic variety between the settings. There are a lot of night time and evening sequences that have a beautiful look to them as well. All in all, it is a fine looking film.

Of all the supporting characters, little Jiminy Cricket is arguably the most famous. He actually is, in a strange way, the most important character of the story. As the fairy bestows upon him the role of ‘official conscience’, Jiminy becomes a guide, a little big brother to Pinocchio. Sometimes big brothers fail to protect and guide their siblings, as is the case on more than one occasion in this film (Honest John tricks Pinocchio twice no less), which made me question his efficiency as a character. It was an odd situation in which whenever Jiminy would plead sanity, such as when Honest John huffs and puffs about Pinocchio’s acting potential, he failed. Near the end, when both he and his protégé learn of Geppetto’s dire situation, Pinocchio’s gut reaction is to rescue his father, whereas Jiminy, at least for a short while, tells him not to risk his life. The kicker is that the audience knows that Pinocchio, in this wild fairy tale world, has made the morally just decision to at least try to save his father from imminent death. Jiminy is ‘wrong’ and Pinocchio is ‘right’. When Jiminy is ‘right’ Pinocchio is fooled by temptation practically every time. And yet, by the film’s end, the fairy rewards the cricket for his efforts anyways with the shiny golden badge he asked for in the beginning of the tale. What have I overlooked? There must be something I didn’t get. Perhaps this was all a reverse psychology kind of test that Jiminy put his protégé through, half expecting him to fail the earlier, less threatening tests. When pleading some sense into Pinocchio when the latter chose to risk his very existence in order to save a loved one, perhaps Jiminy only reinforced Pinocchio’s will to make the morally just decision. Maybe, but maybe not. By the end I was slightly confused as to what Jiminy has really done to earn that nice badge. He does stick with Pinocchio through thick and thin, which must count for something and I am certain that it does, but that wasn’t what he was called upon to do however. Don’t mistake me, I did think he was an entertaining enough character. He was friendly, loyal and had a few pretty decent lines. I only put into question his effectiveness regarding the mandate he had been given in the early goings. Anyways…

Oh, and what kind of a freaking cricket is he supposed to be anyways? He looks nothing like one. Minor detail that I’m certain no will give a hoot about so I’ll move on. I just thought I should give a little shout out to that complaint anyways. I also came to conclude that there can’t be too many chubby, English-speaking female crickets since Jiminy seems to be really attracted to wooden puppets and other toys which have been given female figures. I swear, I think on 3 separate occasions, Jiminy shows signs of lust for female shaped and painted wooden toys. He dances with a female figure when Geppetto discovers Pinocchio is alive (‘How about sitting the next one out, huh babe?’), he tips his hat and gives a hoot of excitement to another female figure during the ‘conscience be your guide’ song, and finally has goo-goo eyes for one of the female puppets in Stromboli’s show. Really weird.

Another little detail that struck me as curious was how Pinocchio, having only a day earlier been given the gift of life, was knowledgeable of things such fame, school (he questions why he must attend school, not what school is) whales, etc. Perhaps the fairy had awarded him with general knowledge that the average lad his age would be familiar with. It’s never explained, and again, it’s probably another one of those details I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to question (why is Geppetto in the whale? How come after slaving for the Queen, Snow White is making those animals clean the house? Etc.). One last thing I’d like to point out is the existence of Honest John and his partner in crime, the mute cat. This is one of the rare occasions in Disney films (I haven’t seen all, and therefore will abstain from claiming ‘The one and only time’) when human characters and animals characters who behave like humans co-exist. The Lion King features talking animals but no humans. Bolt has talking animals and humans, but neither can understand one another. Robin Hood replaces humans with animals. But in Pinocchio, we have a cricket, a fox and a cat who dress, walk and act like humans do in a world populated by humans. I’d love for someone to point out another Disney effort in which this occurs because off the top of my head, I can’t think of one (I’m discounting Emperor’s New Groove because the titular character was transformed into lama as punishment while retaining te ability to speak). Oh wait, that parrot in Aladdin. Well, he doesn’t really behave like a human though.

I’ve rambled for far too long now. In an attempt to formulate a general opinion, I summarize my thoughts by saying that as a complete package, as a cohesive story, I enjoyed Pinocchio a fair bit. I dare say that on the level of narrative quality, the film surpasses Snow White. There were, however, more individual moments from Snow White that I’ll remember more in the months to come. HA ha! I love inconclusive results! Bollocks. The point isn’t to determine which one of the two is ‘better.’ Comparisons are fine, but one should be able to formulate an opinion on the individual product at hand. I liked Pinocchio, although I persist in believing that the real heavy hitters in the Disney cannon are yet to come.

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